TIOGA PASS — If you have never ventured into the high Sierra in the early spring now’s the best time to do so.
Large remnants of this year’s epic Sierra snowfall still clings to the ground. The good news is you don’t have to buy an ice ax, strap on crampons, lug a backpack, and trudge up mountain peaks and passes at 11,000 feet or more to savor snow in July. I spent a week doing just that. And while it was a blast I’ll be the first to admit it can take a lot out of you to do so.
To enjoy one of nature’s greatest Sierra snow blasts all you have to do is drive, get out and walk.
It takes just a 3 hour and 45 minute drive via Highway 120 through Yosemite to reach Saddlebag Lake on the Tioga plateau just outside the national park’s eastern entrance. As an added bonus you can stop in Tuolumne Meadows were a rare triple combo existed last Saturday — extremely light crowds, lots of running water, and fairly intense greenery. The unusually light July Tuloumne Meadows crowds was due to the fact services — the general store, gas station, and tent-style cabins — had not yet opened.
At 9,945 feet, Tioga Pass where Highway 120 crosses is the highest paved part of the California highway system and is some 145 miles east of Manteca.
Tioga Lake as your crest the pass, as well as Ellery Lake that feeds the Lee Vining Creek waterfall before the 120 starts its descent to Highway 395 still had snow around them last week, they are nothing compared to Saddlebag Lake. There was, though, snowboarders and skiers doing short run on the snow on the mountainside overlooking Ellery Lake.
The two mile dirt road to Saddlebag Lake is midway between the two lakes along 120 and requires turning north where you cross one of the many healthy creeks you’ll see this year. Billed as a one-lane road there is essentially room for two vehicles. The road condition is borderline excellent in terms of an unpaved mountain road that is neither steep nor sketchy.
What awaits you at the end of the two miles is a winter wonderland. Last Saturday, 95 percent of the lake still had ice on it. The western side of the 4.5-mile lake loop trail was still buried in snow. Crampons helped to transverse the first half mile plus on the loop on the eastern shore starting from the parking lot.
There were a handful of families fishing on the lake’s edge at 10,400 feet where ice had given way while sitting on snow covered banks. Most kids were content to frolic in the snow with along the lake or on the hillside where plows made the significant remaining snow look even more impressive.
Some were just sitting enjoying the view of up to four feet of snow ringing the mountains around the lake while basking in 75 to 80 degree heat.
Hiking around the lake normally isn’t a major challenge but if you decided to do so, the snow will give you a nice workout. There are other short hiking trails in the immediate Tioga area including the one-mile trek up to much smaller Gardisky Lake where the trailhead starts midway on the road to Saddlebag Lake. You can also hike to a series of smaller lakes on the northern end of Saddlebag Lake that will add a mile or so to the main loop.
What a few people were doing last week was parking along the road to Saddlebag Lake and walking a few hundred feet to fish and meander along the banks of the creek that flows into Ellery Lake.
You can head another 12 miles east on the 120 to reach Lee Vining to make for a little longer day trip.
There are several reasons for doing this. You will find Mono Lake (see accompanying story) as well as a half dozen restaurants, a general store, three specialty stores — sporting goods and touristy stuff — and a pair of gas stations as well as the Mono Lake Committee storefront.
I mention the committee’s storefront as the staff is a wealth of information and they have arguably one of the best book collections on the eastern Sierra as well as on water politics and issues.
If you are looking to overnight, there are lodging options. Given this is the prime season to visit the eastern Sierra, you would be wise to book in advance. I’d have no problem recommending the Lake View Lodge. I’ve stayed their four times and each time it’s been better than the previous time.
The other reason to drop by Lee Vining is so on the way back you can get a photo next to the highway mileage sign that reads “Manteca 160 (miles).” It’s the farthest Manteca sign you’re find. Highway 120 actually starts 45 miles farther to the east at the junction of US Highway 6 in Benton.
If you head that way, you won’t find much there except for the access to the main park for visiting Mono Lake and the Benton Hot Springs where primitive outdoor hot tubs are available at about a dozen or so privately owned camp sites.
There is great peak hiking in the area including Glass Mountain. What makes the area special is that it is part of the Long Valley Caldera — the largest active volcano region in California — that stretches from the Mammoth area to the Mono Lake Basin.
Where else in California can you take a road like Highway 120 that passes through Manteca, make your way through the world-famous Yosmeite National Park, drive the state’s highest highway pavement descend down Tioga Canyon, see the remnants of one of the oldest lakes in the United States, and drive through volcano country.
On the way back to Manteca you can stretch your legs at Tenaya Lake that is snuggled against Highway 120 that’s known as Tioga Road through Yosemite.
As day trips go, there aren’t too many that compare especially since you can still drive right up to snow at Saddlebag Lake in mid-July.
To contact Dennis Wyatt, email email@example.com